Every time I sit down to “pen in,” it is invariably after much struggle against “writer’s block.” But when it happens, thoughts and ideas and experiences nudge and jostle to find space in my write-up. Keeping them on track is a Herculean task, and when the assignment is to write on theatre, and Indian theatre at that, it is a cascade. Where does one start? What does one cover? How does one rein in all that is happening? How does one overcome the temptation not to be partial in the coverage? 2,000 years of theatre, with the oldest form (the “Kuddiattam”) still practiced in certain southern pockets, the length and breadth of the country vibrating with activity. Some small, some big, but all there to take your breath away. The dramatic times we live in give us enough inspiration to respond and so much more!
As I mulled over what to write about in this piece, definitely shying from narrating the history of Indian theatre, I wanted to raise some concerns that besiege me on my theatrical sojourns and, then, share some recent experiences.
On my recent visit to the Emerald Island (Sri Lanka), for a symposium on Traditional Arts in the Context of Globalisation, I sat back in the rather uncomfortable chair of the sparsely occupied auditorium, taking in the magnificent oration of the chairperson, Kiran Grewal, from Australia. As she set out the use of the arts as a means of advocacy and therapy for gang rape victims, two words she used jarred me out of my complacency. Two phrases, though out of context to my previous experiences, jabbed at me and made me sit up. Yes, I had heard them often, maybe a bit too often on my travels, and definitely often back home. I had wondered then, I had tried to understand them, I had tried to reason with them, but it was as if I was too drawn into my comfort zone to pursue the matter further. Those phrases were “Meaningful Theatre” and “Theatre of Discomfort.”
Back in India, remnants of the speech had stuck with me. The visit to theatre practiced by the ethnic communities in Sri Lanka left a pleasant taste. I had spent a week with Sanjoy Ganguly as my roomie. Sanjoy is an important international voice, who practices theatre of the oppressed in Kolkata and elsewhere, on many “Meaningful” occasions. All of this came rushing back to me when I got home from Sri Lanka. It was pleading for both an audience and a discourse. So I decided to “pen in.”
“As compared to our times”: this phrase may seem a tad clichéd. The present is turbulent at all quarters, be they social, political, economic or cultural. The world seems to be flung high in relentless wars, idiosyncrasies run unabated, dialogues thinning out, anger flares up at the drop of a hat. “Vote bank” politics are ramming deep into the arts, which are the first victim of any cross-border conflict, hammered, abused, mutilated and coerced. Writers’ are murdered, foreign artists are debarred from practicing in conflict zones, theatre productions are banned and cancelled. Turbulent times indeed!
That theatre is and has been a strong tool of inciting emotions and hitting out at injustice, within its artistic limitations, is no new theory or discovery. At one end, there are these “Times,” with stories galore at every turn, enough to satiate the creative instincts, and in dire need of representation. At the other end, there is an artistic community “waiting for the right time” to react. Going by the intensity of instability in the world and a need to give expression to smothered voices and shackled intentions, the “reactions” of the art community seem very far from the demands of our times. I don’t want to sound pompous by generalizing, and I humbly claim to have not seen all works in the country. I speak for what I have, and that has been dismal.
Now, I come back to these two terms, “Meaningful Theatre” and “Theatre of Discomfort.” They seem to be different. Linguistically, they could imply different meanings. As I try to engage with them and attempt to unravel the layers, I realize, on the one hand, that I am on slippery and highly debatable grounds, and, on the other, that these concepts seem to be interlinked and impacting upon each other. Trying to understand what makes theatre “meaningful” points us towards the nexus between the performers, the act and the viewers; and we must never forget the role of publicity and the media in shaping the reception of such work by the masses. Here, my ignorance of some good work done in other parts of the country could be explained.
Ironically, as I try to find my answers as to the implication of these terms, more questions than answers befall my path. Who and what decides what is meaningful? Art could be meaningful to the creator, but, then, is its stance worthwhile if it is not understood by the viewer in the way expected by its creator? Does that then mean that one has to oversimplify and spoon-feed the audience? Is satisfying the audience the ultimate benchmark in deciding the success of a production? Are artists prepared to tackle this challenge? How does one raise the bar of aesthetic appreciation of the audience and its willingness to see varied works of art, in all their complexities?
Can we compartmentalize art forms such as painting, theatre, dance, installations, multimedia, calligraphy, sculpture, graffiti, music and literature, denying their interdependence and the collectivity of their response in the face of repression? Can they be effective “cultures of resistance”? Does creating “discomfort” lead to “meaningful” theatre or vice versa? For this argument to stand up, does “meaningful” theatre have to be reactive, in terms of offering an immediate response to a situation? Does it have to be a theatre of protest, a theatre of oppression, street theatre? What then happens to definitions of theatre as “entertainment,” or to theatre for “awareness,” “education,” etc., where the impact or reach may be immediately seen? For that matter, how does one measure the “impact,” which is, in a sense, qualitative rather than quantifiable?
This may seem rather confusing, but it needs to be considered. Whatever flavor one may give to the approach to the arts, some things are, in my opinion, beyond question. As artists we cannot be mute “spectators” to the changing times. We have to use the important “artistic tool” that we possess to express something “meaningfully.” The need to shed our “comfortable” clothes, and face the “naked and exploited” truth of the times we live in, is paramount. Theatre has proved in the past that it has the power to unsettle even the powerful. We should rejoice in that, while giving depth and critical understanding to our work. “Playing to the gallery,” and merely pleasing those who are already content is self indulgent. I accept that impact analysis takes time. It raises more questions than it answers. If we know that theatre has the power to make a considerable difference in one’s life, then, at what age should we be introduced to it? What do we do with theatres that are already hardened in their comfortable philosophy of live drama as mere entertainment? I wonder whether in today’s changing times, there is now, more than ever before, a need to redefine theatre and its objectives.
Though I might seem morose, depressing and pessimistic about theatre practices in India, let me assure you that there remains a great spirit and vigour within live drama in India. The British ruled India for nine decades and left us the proscenium arch theatre. We cherished it for the many years after independence, but it was never our style. Traditionally, we performed in open spaces, courtyards and the grounds of temples. Of late, I have noticed a resurgence in the search for alternative spaces for performance, and it seems to be doing the trick. On the one hand, it helps to overcome the problems associated with the proscenium, in terms of logistics, availability, finance, etc. On the other, it has the virtue of reaching out to the audience where they are. Garages, private residences, car parks, courtyards, open air theatres and forests are among the many innovative spaces being explored.
Choosing specific productions in Indian theatre to write about raises the dilemma of partiality. I have followed some of the work of the National School of Drama graduate Vidyanidhee Vanarase, who has carved a niche for himself in the directorial role. Three of his recent productions (which are still running) make use of unique spaces, which are catching the imaginations of audiences and inspiring other theatre artists to follow suit.
The Balancing Act (running since 2014) is a performance in gibberish, which, consequently, could be played anywhere. I have seen it in open gardens, intimate theatres and terraces. It takes a critical look at the world of the child and the way it perceives the violence that engulfs it. Performed by a group of actors belonging to Pune based IAPAR (International Association of Performing Arts and Research), it is a highly flexible and adaptable show, with minimalistic sets and the actor’s body at the centre. It has had many performances to an overwhelming response and been staged in multiple spaces, rarely in the proscenium. It concerns itself with violence as experienced by children in play spaces, at school, at home, through video games and, at times, as the victims of predatory paedophiles.
Given the topic, one could be forgiven for recoiling, expecting a very traumatic experience in the theatre. However, the director has deftly avoided the temptation to spell out the predicament of children who are subjected to violence. The show is not gratuitous, preachy or prudish. Rather it touches upon this grave issue in grey shades, moving between humour and gravity. It is subtle in presentation, but powerful in meaning. Interestingly, it succeeds in catering to a diverse audience, children and adults alike all of whom find that they can relate to the production at their own level.
As Vidhyanidhee explains: “In today’s world, young people see violence almost everywhere. How would the life of young people who are going through or have gone through violence be? What kind of imagination and ideas would evolve in their minds? What could the repercussions of being brought up in such an environment be? Can we equip them to deal with such circumstances?” This play attempts to respond to some of these questions.’
DNA (performing since 2015), written by Greek playwright Giorgos Neophytou and translated into Marathi by Shyamala Vanarase, is an intense, long one-act play, performed primarily in people’s drawing rooms.
The audience is privy to an emotional rollercoaster in the lives of a family, awaiting, even after a long hiatus, the return of the man of the house, who is lost at war. The wife hangs on to hope for her beloved, the son is ready to accept the worst. Performed well by a group of three actors, it requires an intimate space in which one can experience the tragedy in all its intensity. I have seen it being performed for a group of ten to fifteen people, and to a larger audience of fifty, depending upon the available space. The experience is unnerving, yet exciting.
The third production, Is God A Taoist?, written by Raymond Smullyan (performing since 2016), involves a philosophical and intellectual debate between two protagonists, God and a mortal. Fascinatingly I was witness to two different productions of this play. The earlier one, directed by another director, was presented as a performed reading in a small intimate theatre. Vidyanidhee Vanarase’s full production offered an entirely different experience. The conversation was set in a modern cafe, with waiters, sitting at round tables among the audience, doubling as the protagonists. It has been performed in actual cafes, garden cafes, garages and a shopping mall.
So, to conclude. India is fascinating in terms of the arts and can be viewed and studied from various perspectives. The more you scratch the surface the deeper and better it gets, especially where theatre is concerned. Spanning the entire range from folk traditions to highly sophisticated and chic productions, it caters to a varied palette and provides a diverse output for us to cherish and for we viewers to critique.
*Ajay Joshi is a practicing dentist, with a Ph.D. in theatre criticism, and a Masters in journalism and mass communication, having freelanced with major Indian and international newspaper, magazines and journals on theatre and culture. He has been involved in theatre festivals as media person, organizer, coordinator and jury member. He has translated many Marathi plays into English. He has numerous papers on theatre in national and International seminars to his credit. He is visiting lecturer on theatre and journalism at Symbiosis University, University of Pune and Flame School of Performing Arts. Currently, he writes on theatre for Saakal Times, E-Rang and Critical Stages.